U.S. Court of Appeals Affirms Summary Judgment Barring Expert Witnesses Under Daubert

S.V. and Hemalatha Gopalratnam sued the laptop manufacturer Hewlett-Packard claiming that its battery pack maker, DynaPack Technology Corp. and battery cell manufacturer, Samsung SDI Co. Ltd. were a cause of the death of their son, Arun Gopalratnam who died in a fire in the basement bedroom of the Gopalratnam’s home. An autopsy showed that Arun’s death was caused by smoke inhalation.

The origin of this fire was said to have been near the mattress of Arun’s bed, according to Special Agent Antonio H. Martinez of the Wisconsin Department of Criminal Investigations. Included in the debris was the HP laptop, a Nokia cellphone and 2 or 3 laptop battery cells in the basement bedroom and a third laptop battery cell in the debris, which was shoveled into the backyard.

The lawsuit included claims of negligence, strict product liability and breach of warranty. To support these claims, the Gopalratnam family hired two expert witnesses who gave opinion testimony at trial that one of the three battery cells experienced “thermal runaway,” which generated high temperatures causing the cell to explode and catch fire.

One of the experts, Daniel H. Doughty, a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and self-styled expert on battery safety, opined that of the three laptop battery cells, two were OK but the one found on the outside debris in the backyard experienced severe thermal runaway, reaching an extremely high temperature, which caused it to explode. Dr. Doughty opined either a manufacturing defect or flaw caused a short of the computer’s safety control circuitry, which caused the cell to short-circuit and explode.

The second expert, Michael F. Hill, a retired certified fire investigator of the Illinois Chapter of the International Association of Arson Investigators, opined three things: (1) the fire originated on the top of the bed; (2) the most probable cause was the laptop battery; and (3) the fire was accidental.

After hearing these opinions, the defendants moved to bar both Doughty’s and Hill’s testimony as unreliable speculation under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and DaubertDaubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993).

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago affirmed the dismissal and the order granting summary judgment that barred these experts’ opinions because they were unreliable and based their opinions on speculation and unfounded inferences.

Judge Joel M. Flaum began the court’s gatekeeper function on the admission of expert opinion testimony this way: “In performing its gatekeeper role under Rule 702 and Daubert, ‘the district court must engage in a three-step analysis before admitting expert testimony. It must determine whether the witness is qualified; whether the expert’s methodology is scientifically reliable; and whether the testimony will “assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.”’

In this case, Judge Flaum said the expert’s qualifications were satisfactory as was their testimony in assisting the trier of fact, but that neither of the two experts met the reliability of methodology test.

In the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion, ten benchmarks were set out to determine an expert’s reliability.

In the opinion of the appeals panel, Doughty’s reliability failed when it comes to the method by which he derived conclusions from these underlying events. Doughty’s report determined that the cells’ differential appearance suggested that one cell, Cell-A, “had a different failure mechanism.” This inference, however, relied almost entirely on Doughty’s premise that the exposure of cells to external fire (as opposed to internal fault) “causes predictable results” among the cells.

In short, despite concluding that a manufacturing defect led to the alleged internal fault in this case, Doughty could not provide details as to what the specific defect was; why it transpired; when it occurred in the manufacturing process; or even where such manufacturing took place. Rather, Doughty simply opined that, because several manufacturing processes “can cause” an internal short circuit, such must have occurred here. The court said this is simply too speculative to pass muster under Daubert and Rule 702.

For these and other reasons, the summary judgment and dismissal of this case was affirmed by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

S.V. Gopalratnam v. Hewlett-Packard Co., 2017 WL 6398070 (U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling product liability lawsuits, fire death lawsuits, pharmaceutical defect cases and wrongful death lawsuits for individuals, families and the loved ones who have been injured, harmed or killed by the negligence of another for more than 40 years, in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Morton Grove, Niles, Bedford Park, Bridgeview, Elmwood Park, River Grove, Elk Grove Village, Buffalo Grove, Highland Park, Homewood, Chicago (South Loop, Pulaski Park, Printer’s Row, Pilsen, Old Town Triangle, Chinatown, Cragin, Edgewater, Gold Coast, Gladstone Park, Garfield Park, Horner Park, Irving Park), Joliet, Hinsdale and Geneva, Ill.

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